What Does Esports "Success" Look Like For Sports Leagues

Industry Guest Post: Brett Morris is a former Senior Vice President for Mark Cuban (MarkCubanCompanies.com) and former President/COO of esports innovator Super League Gaming (SuperLeague.com). He’s now a consultant in esports and other emerging technologies and can be reached at Brett@MorrisStrategic.com


I can guarantee you this: The five major U.S. sports leagues and the respective game publishers will see tremendous success as a result of their upcoming esports league journeys.

How to measure that success in the mid to long-term is obvious - increased game sales, sponsorship dollars, in-game purchases, viewership numbers, ticket sales, etc.

But how to evaluate in the short-term? What will set the table for long-term prosperity?

One measurement I use with many of the start-ups I’ve worked with lies in answering this one question:

“If you could caption one photo ‘Success’ (in this case, ‘Esports Success’), in your Instagram feed 2–3 years from now, what would that photo look like?”

For the sports video games and their leagues, the expected answer would be something along the lines of a photo of a rowdy, packed-to-the-brim stadium for an esports event or a capture of a headline outlining 2K’s micro transactions windfall.

But while each would be great, I strongly believe they may be too shortsighted.

I believe the photo mock-up below of a father and son in their respective Knicks/Knicks Gaming jerseys is the ideal “success” story:

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At first glance, you may think I’m crazy. The father and son aren’t even at an event. There aren’t any sponsors. There are only two people.

But the simplicity of this photo best illustrates what’s fueled every major success in sports — from Super Bowl LII, to $12 billion baseball broadcast deals, to $100 million player contracts — and that’s 2 words:

Shared experiences.

  • You want sponsorship dollars, focus on shared experiences.
  • You want a spike in game downloads and in-game purchases, focus on shared experiences.
  • You want viewers and increased loyalty, focus on shared experiences.

While the phrase may be cliché to some in traditional sports marketing, it may be unfamiliar yet more important to many in esports.

Bottom line, shared experiences drive revenues.

For example, nine hypotheticals looking at that photo:

  1. Isn’t that dad more prone to buying his kid a Knicks Gaming jersey versus an Overwatch jersey come birthday present time? Even if the kid spends more time playing Overwatch.
  2. Come tomorrow morning, isn’t that kid more likely to share with his dad NBA 2K League highlights than League of Legends highlights?
  3. Will that dad ignore his kid’s in-game purchases on his credit card because he’s a Knicks fan too? 
  4. Won’t that dad be more excited to take his kid to a game at Madison Square Garden, knowing that it’s also the home of the Knicks Gaming team? That kid will be more excited to go too.
  5. Won’t that dad be more proud to tell his New York City co-workers that his son is draft eligible by the Knicks gaming team than the Rocket League team? And thus encourage him to play more NBA2K.
  6. Won’t that kid go to the local restaurant/bar with his dad to watch both the Knicks NBA game and the Knicks NBA2K game on TVs side-by-side?
  7. That dad will surely attend the NBA 2K League finals with his Knicks jersey and his kid.
  8. When that kid isn’t sure if he should use his allowance to buy Overwatch or the NBA 2K League update, which do you think his dad will recommend?
  9. Won’t that dad be more apt to tell other parents the experience he’s had with NBA2K rather than another game like Fortnite - which his kid loves?

So what does all this mean?

Put best by Brian Solis, author of The End of Business As Usual:

“This is the time to define an experience, what it should be, what it should feel like, what it should evoke. Because, if you’re not creating the experiences you want people to have and share, then your brand and the impressions that are formed as a result are theirs to define.”

What success looks like for the five major sports leagues and the game publishers starts with what shared experiences look like. In these early days of esports for sports leagues, we have the opportunity to focus on getting these shared experiences right.

The Branding Behind The NBA 2K League Team Logos

THE BRANDING BEHIND THE NBA 2K LEAGUE TEAM LOGOS

NBA 2K League and Team Logos (Photo: NBA)

NBA 2K League and Team Logos (Photo: NBA)

TNL Take: This week saw the release of the NBA 2K League logo as well as the reveal of the individual team names and branding.  

The NBA 2K League Logo was revealed first:

  • The NBA 2K League logo uses the colors and shape of the NBA logo and incorporates the font of the NBA 2K logo
  • Unlike traditional sports leagues, there is no human silhouette, a nod to the inclusive nature of the league 
  • Centerpiece of the design is a basketball

The Next Level also spoke with individuals at Wizards District Gaming, Pacers Gaming and Jazz Gaming for their take on the team branding.

 

WIZARDS DISRICT GAMING

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You can clearly see the color connection with parent company Monumental Sports and Entertainment and the Washington Wizards with the familiar red and blue. The 3 stars in the logo represent not only the 3 stars in the DC flag, but also the communities of DC, Maryland and Virginia.

“We couldn’t be more excited to unveil the branding for Wizards District Gaming. Our logo is the perfect extension of the values that are reflective of the MSE family of teams: inclusivity, diversity, and a desire to be the best. We are confident that fans our franchises, as well as the DMV area as a whole, will be able to appreciate our approach to representing our home in an authenticate and meaningful way.”- Grant Paranjape, Director of Esports Business & Team Operations

 

PACERS GAMING

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Who doesn't love Boomer, the Indiana Pacers mascot? The Pacers Gaming logo is a new interpretation of the familiar feline.

“Boomer, the Pacers Panther mascot, is part of our heritage and symbolizes confidence, courage, and power. This new modernized version of the Pacers Panther is also sleek, confident, sly, and ready to pounce. We're proud, we're confident, and we know the game of basketball better than anyone else. This is Indiana. This is Pacers Gaming.” - Cody Parrent, Director of eSports Operations

 

JAZZ GAMING

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The Jazz Gaming logo keeps the traditional Utah Jazz colors in place while also cleverly combing the J and G together. The alternate logo even mashes up the music background of the organization.

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“We wanted our logo to showcase the state of Utah and show its part in video game history as well. It also gives you the look & feel that it belongs together with the other franchises at LHM Sports & Entertainment. We are very proud of the logo and look forward to what we build behind it.” - Josh Barney, Director of Esports and Tech

 

While the NBA 2K League will not showcase current players or teams, every logo and brand asset pays homage to their traditional sports counterpart. Will be interesting to see the crossover appeal between a basketball fan and a NBA 2K fan once the league launches next year.

10 Ways The NBA 2K League Could Change All Sports Not Just Esports

10 WAYS THE NBA 2K LEAGUE COULD CHANGE ALL SPORTS NOT JUST ESPORTS

NBA 2K League (Photo: Morris Strategic)

NBA 2K League (Photo: Morris Strategic)

The Next Level Industry Guest Post 012: Brett Morris is former President/COO of esports innovator Super League Gaming (SuperLeague.com)and former senior executive for Mark Cuban (MarkCubanCompanies.com). He can be reached at Brett@MorrisStrategic.com


The NBA 2K League is the most important venture for the future of sports. All sports.

Not just esports and not just the NBA. While it sounds like a bold statement here are 10 key reasons why it’s very easy to see how an innovative NBA 2K League will define and change a lot of what we know as sports fans, athletes and associated organizations.

 

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/01 GAMEPLAN FOR OVER-THE-TOP PROGRAMMING, TELCOS, CABLE, PAYWALLS: With Millennials and Gen Z’ers as its focus, how will the NBA 2K League creatively sell media rights across apps, OTTs, Telcos, Cable, etc? 

The result could not only be a blueprint for future sport leagues, but actually dictate viewing habits for generations to come — especially when it comes to free versus paywall. 

While the NBA signed its most recent TV contract just a year ago, a lot has changed since then. With Apple, Amazon (its Twitch), Netflix, Hulu, Verizon, YouTube TV and others getting uber-competitive (and somewhat desperate at times) for premium content, the space couldn’t be hotter — especially for “live” and anything geared toward Millennials and Gen Z’ers.

The NBA 2K League media rights deal won’t be on the same planet, dollar-wise, as the NBA’s obviously, but it will be telling how the NBA is able to negotiate with the new/old players — for both 2K and the NBA’s future (are there elements they can tie together?). The NBA’s seasoned TV executives know the value and metrics of live TV better than anyone. 

The negotiations and learnings here will be massive data points for all sports. 

And, like the landmark Riot Games / BAMTECH deal (reported to be 6 years, $300 million), this is truly a digital first deal. Not to mention the possibilities in AR/VR which are just now taking shape.

/02 INDIA AND INTERNATIONAL MARKETING: The biggest hurdle to international expansion has always been, as Adam Silver once said, “the planes aren’t fast enough.” Obviously an online digital product, that mimics the game itself, changes the perspective, and provides for a much more economical means of marketing.

The NBA and NBA 2K already have deals with China’s Tencent — one of the world’s top 10 most valuable companies and builder of 2 new esports theme parks (yes, esport theme parks). And no league has had greater success overseas than the NBA, especially in China.

According to IHS Markit, China accounted for 57 percent of all online esports viewing globally last year. While the digital product isn’t the real thing, could it be? It’s easy to see how NBA 2K League teams based in NBA hot beds like India could come online soon. And who knows, the next “NBA star” in India could be an Indian-born 2K gamer, not an American shooting guard. Last season’s NBA Finals were the first ever broadcast in Hindi. 

The NBA and NBA 2K League’s impact in India alone (and their 1.2 billion population) could dictate, educate, and set the table for all sports leagues.

[Edit: Previous 2 part article on the Indian esports market as well as the NBA in China]

 

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/03 INNOVATIONS IN BROADCAST COVERAGE: Imagine this: What if the TV hadn’t been invented and all we had was mobile phones to watch video

While this is just as much a task for the 2K programmers in Novato, CA, if I’m the NBA 2K League, this is how I’m thinking out of the gate. Even more: Gen Z’ers are consuming a tremendous amount of video in vertical formats on their phones, i.e. Snapchat Discover. While that’s hard to wrap a traditional TV producer’s head around, just imagine the opportunities for innovation — again, not just for NBA 2K League, but the Association itself and other sports leagues. 

Without any of the traditional “rules” of TV hindering a broadcast, imagine what types of innovations NBA 2K will come up with (I have some ideas!) and how each could possibly be used for traditional NBA broadcasts. The entire sports viewing landscape is evolving and the NBA and other leagues can use this as an incubator and testing ground for the next-gen fan.

What will the next “digital first down line” or “glow puck” be?

 

Dedicated Arena Rendering (Photo: Populous/Morris Strategic)

Dedicated Arena Rendering (Photo: Populous/Morris Strategic)

/04 NEW DEDICATED ARENAS WITH INTERACTIVE FAN EXPERIENCES (AND DYNAMIC PRICING): While the NBA 2K League will initially play its games at 1 main location, it’s easy to foresee how the expected success of the League could lead to brand new multi-use, several-thousand seat stadiums, geared for esports — especially since 2 other esport leagues starting in 2018 (Overwatch and League of Legends) will be city-based and looking for places to conduct live competitions. 

Just imagine the learnings from customization around gaming, the potential interactivity with the game and its players and the overall excitement and architecture of a dedicated, electric space. 

In fact, check out some of these architectural concepts, from the global architecture firm Populous here. Could these new arenas be used for other sports leagues, like the BIG 3 (3-on-3 basketball), MMA events, beach volleyball or EDM concerts?

Also, without the historical fan expectations, combined with the purchasing habits of gaming fans, could this also be the beginning of a U.S. arena ticketing model that is 100 percent variable, or even dynamic, pricing?

 

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/05 SLEEVED JERSEYS, NEW MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITIES, STREETWEAR: The market for collectible sneakers is estimated to be valued at $1 billion. The NBA and its players (and obviously Jordan) have the most influence over the success of that market.

Know who gets nearly zero revenue from that market?  The NBA or other sports leagues. The main reason behind the NBA introducing sleeved jerseys with Adidas several years ago was finding “something available to our fans that they would feel more comfortable wearing,” Silver said. Unfortunately, it wasn’t comfortable for the players. Sleeves won’t matter for the competitive gamer and there’s no reason their “official jersey” can’t have them.

Will the saturation of the collectible sneaker market open up the possibility of new collectible goods and the desire for something new and exciting? Imagine opening up the new NBA 2K League (or other sports league) team jersey designs to streetwear brands like Supreme, Bathing Ape (BAPE), Anti Social Social Club, etc. 

While NBA-licensed merchandise has always been a major revenue generator for the Association, the NBA 2K League could surprise here from day one and jumpstart a streetwear/collectible category no other league has conquered.

 

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/06 RE-THINKING SPORTS MEDIA AND JOURNALISM: Millennials and Gen Z’ers have eight-second attention spans, prefer highly visual/video content (i.e. don’t read), spend 5 hours daily on mobile, and an insatiable desire to share content and achievements. Go to ESPN.com or any other current sports media site or app, including the NBA’s Turner-produced media sites, and they fulfill very few of these needs. 

It’s time for sports leagues to start with a blank slate/screen and come up with a new media network that is 100 percent custom-engineered for their bite-sized consumption habits.

 

/07 SOCIAL PROMOTION/CURRENCY TIED TO PLAYER CONTRACTS AND PLAYER VALUE: The success of the NBA 2K League will have a lot to do with the social promotion by its own players and not the League beating its own chest, especially with a Gen Z market where “authenticity” can make or break a product. 

When the League selects its first 85 players, surely presence on social media, especially YouTube and Twitch, will play a part in the selection. It should also play a part in the player’s contract. 

Right next to PPG will be YTS (YouTube subscribers) and IF (Instagram followers). NBA 2K YouTuber Chris Smoove has 3.7 million subscribers. Major League Baseball, as an entire league, has 943,000. I can only imagine that number would be much higher if Aaron Judge was contractually obligated to have a fan channel (and rewarded based on his audience numbers).

 

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/08 CITY-BASED SPORTS MARKETING: There’s a massive, and very important, difference between all esports leagues and events conducted in the U.S. to date and many in 2018.

For the first time ever, the three main esport leagues (NBA 2K, Overwatch and League of Legends) will be city-based. Esports fans will have their own “home team” to root for.

Obviously this creates enormous opportunities but none greater on the marketing front — especially as directed to a younger generation. And none bigger for the casual fan. 

With every fan of the League 100 percent mobile, just imagine the possibilities for the League’s Rewards/Loyalty programs and the connections to local retailers. While many sports league’s have attempted similar local connections, the NBA 2K League’s audience will be the perfect incubator for success and failures to come.

/09 TIME FOR NEW “AMATEUR” SPORTS ORGANIZATIONS: Both the NCAA and Olympics have discussed opportunities in esports as possible inclusions to their existing structures - and the NBA has had its share of issues with both (from the one-and-done NCAA rule, to Olympic scheduling and revenues).

My advice: Stay away and start anew — for both the League, Association and other sports leagues. The possibilities are endless. Having dealt with both on major sports projects, I can tell you they are nothing more than unaccountable bureaucrats hiding behind the walls of amateurism, as I’ve explained in the past here.

 

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/10: UNRESTRICTED MINOR LEAGUE, PLAYER DEVELOPMENT THINKING: The loudest chatter in the NBA 2K world these days is who the initial 85 players will be.

What will happen to the next several hundred that don’t make the cut, but pretty damn close. How will teams develop their rosters?

Not surprisingly, the NBA and other leagues have similar issues here, but ones that are also deeply governed by player unions and collective bargaining agreements.

The NBA 2K League has a chance to rewrite the script/rules, without burden, and could possibly come up with an innovative way for other leagues to learn from. Especially whether or not such a developmental league should be owned by parent clubs or independent organizations.

esports and NBA 2K Sponsors: Don’t Wait, Innovate

ESPORTS AND NBA 2K SPONSORS: DON'T WAIT, INNOVATE

esports and NBA 2K Sponsors: Don’t Wait, Innovate (Photo: Morris Strategic)

esports and NBA 2K Sponsors: Don’t Wait, Innovate (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Industry Guest Post 011: Brett Morris is the former President/COO of esports innovator Super League Gaming (SuperLeague.com)and former senior executive for Mark Cuban (MarkCubanCompanies.com). He can be reached at Brett@MorrisStrategic.com


Yesterday, on a call with the CMO of a top 50 brand, I realized how important the launch of the NBA 2K League is. Regarding all of his company’s esports sponsorship plans, he said: “We’re going to wait and see what happens with the NBA League?”

I politely mused to myself, “Wait for what?” and responded to him with all the impressive projections, demographics, audience numbers, etc. that all of us in the esports industry have been stuffing our PowerPoint decks with for years.

Naming Rights to the NBA 2K League’s Trophy (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Naming Rights to the NBA 2K League’s Trophy (Photo: Morris Strategic)

But looking back a day later, I completely understand the value of his comment in several ways. While the NBA 2K League is a different game type and audience than League of Legends’ NA LCS and Overwatch League (both of which have larger existing audiences as well), the entire “esports” category is being considered as one — for better or worse.

And it’s the NBA 2K League that’s easiest to explain to the neophyte. While many of us are in the daily trenches of the industry, most executives of major brands still “just don’t get esports” (as partly evidenced by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s comments this week).

Bedroom Wall Space Is Up For Grabs (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Bedroom Wall Space Is Up For Grabs (Photo: Morris Strategic)

But they do know the game of basketball, and a CMO explaining a 5v5 digital version of it to the CEO or board of a public company is infinitely much easier than trying to explain Soldier 76, Super Minions and Summoner’s Rift.

Additionally, I also questioned “why wait?” The opportunity to be a leader in the space — with the three, franchise-based leagues launching in the coming months — is now. What I realized is, that’s our responsibility. As embedded in esports as we are, we need to show uneasy, unfamiliar sponsors how to get involved and how to innovate — especially in a meaningful and 100 percent authentic way.

Take the NBA 2K League launch, for example. My head spins thinking about all the amazing sponsor activations the League could do to launch it.

Obviously there’s a ton to consider regarding existing NBA sponsors, budgets, timelines, etc., but just throwing out a few top-of-mind ideas — purely for fun, brainstorming and discussion sake (so please add to the discussion):

Players Could Earn Sponsored “Prospect” Badges (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Players Could Earn Sponsored “Prospect” Badges (Photo: Morris Strategic)

1. BEING “SCOUTED” BADGE: Unless you follow NBA 2K players and content creators, you have no idea that the most chatter regarding the upcoming league is about who the first 85 players (17 teams, 5 players each) will be. While scouting (and the upcoming in-game tryout mode) will be a big task for NBA 2K teams, what if they added a layer of transparency and started identifying those being scouted — and sold that sponsorship? Instant authenticity for that sponsor, but also some risk, because not everyone will be prospects.

Will There Be A Female NBA 2K Pro (Photo: Morris Strategic)

Will There Be A Female NBA 2K Pro (Photo: Morris Strategic)

2. FEMALE NBA 2K PLAYER: While there may or may not be a female player in the initial top 85, identify the best female prospects now. The marketability and PR opportunities of that person and the brand associated with her would be off the charts, especially in a demo looking for more female participation.

 

"Home" Game Season Ticket Holders (Photo: Morris Strategic)

"Home" Game Season Ticket Holders (Photo: Morris Strategic)

3. SEASON TICKETS: The first season of the NBA 2K League will be played in studios (locations TBD), not in respective team cities or arenas, but I still think there’s an opportunity to identify the most hardcore fans in each city — now. And nothing says hardcore fan like a limited-number season ticket package with its share of exclusive offers, tchotchkes, etc.

4. POSTERS: While not innovative, the kid’s bedroom wall poster (as illustrated above) may be the most valuable tool in the early days of marketing the new leagues, teams and players. Get them out now. Don’t forget the many opportunities to connect the digital world with the real world.

City Based Guerrilla Marketing (Photo: Morris Strategic)

City Based Guerrilla Marketing (Photo: Morris Strategic)

5. ANYTHING GUERRILLA, VIRAL,CITY-BASED: Paste up the graffiti. Create an “Army.” Have the mayor introduce the city to its first gaming team. Now with city-based teams there are a million possibilities here.

6. CHAMPIONSHIP TROPHY SPONSOR, DESIGN (see illustration above): There’s nothing more exciting to an NBA fan than the Larry O’Brien trophy. The time is now to introduce what the players and teams are fighting for in the NBA 2K League. Heck, Dr. Pepper is reportedly paying $35 Million, per season, for the naming rights of the College Football National Championship trophy.